TAG MAPcontentquery



Texts Videos Images Authors Projects
General Tags Technologies Authors Places Names
Root Topics

Phantoms of the City

On Myths, Utopia and Urban Phantoms of Liberty

Already, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and increasing numbers in slums and ghettos. Cities are facing big challenges and changes due to infrastructural, economic, and social problems. Towns were not just built on solidarity and expanded political cohesion but on exclusion. Even if mechanisms of exclusion were present from the very beginning, the German Middle Ages had a saying that "Stadtluft macht frei" ("town air makes free"), based on a rule which allowed a serf to become a free man if he stayed in a town for a year and a day. Millions are pushing into the cities, searching for the "Phantom of Liberty". As in the film of the same name, cries resound: "down with freedom, long live the chains" – when in the name of freedom all the forces in the world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter.

Megalopolis Culture

Globalization marks the successful conquest of space in modernity. Transport costs all around the world have fallen dramatically, communication and transfer of data and immaterial goods have become virtually instantaneous. Cities have always been centers of prosperity, but the world’s financial service centers are the product of a sequence of technologies for overcoming space. Transnational architectures of power and control connect these zones of wealth in a multitude of manifestations. Geographical categories of North and South, or industrialized and developing countries, are becoming increasingly obsolete in a globalised world. Many "developed" cities struggle with extreme poverty while cities in South and East Asia are interspersed with luxurious high tech enclaves. The inner cores of Western cities, or suburbs like the banlieus of Paris, are colonies in the interior, zones of neglect and of withdrawal of urban services.
Global cities and world cities are of geostrategic importance as hubs of transnational knowledge architecture and of the control of main resources. They organize finance and production and the integration of the world in structures of transport, logistics, and surveillance; an integrated network of world cities which orchestrates neoliberal national economies and the expansion of their hegemony. In addition to their importance as economic demarcation of regions, urban spaces have a symbolic role in the demonstration of power and government, which also depict political or religious regime changes. As visual spaces of the dominant ideology their narrative form and manipulation of meaning are usually left to the craftsmanship of fine arts.

Economic Myths

Large cities are often called "melting pots". But nationalism as an imagined homogenous community is rendered obsolete in the radical heterogeneity of world cities. In the incommensurability of global cities, the myth of supranational capitalism becomes a psychological necessity beyond proof and becomes the only valid interpretation of globalization. Cities are no longer defined by their relation to the sovereign, but by the concurrence of individual desire embedded in bureaucracies of abstract financial logic and asymmetric interests of global elites. Money and property have become institutional mechanisms through which desire and the satisfaction of wants are objectified, manipulated and administered. An understanding of the city can therefore only be reached by confronting this objectification of relationships. Where people become objects, their institutions are not equipped to develop human potential or to accommodate an articulation of human possibilities beyond zombie consumption. In a society constituted by market mechanisms, social justice is a category mistake. Money is a strange thing since no-one has been able to define this lucky charm of desire although it has acquired the status of a law of nature. But the belief in supernatural market forces is deeply rooted, and the ruling institutions depict all alternatives as pathetic heresies. Every financial transaction is a cultural act of belief and sacrament of a community which believes in this means of payment. Thus, the continuation of the New York stock trade became an ideological fight against evil, and consumption a patriotic duty in the wake of the attacks on the WTC. Means of payment are communication and it is useful to know what they say. But money primarily speaks with itself and says little. Nevertheless, communication protocols and the semantic network of corporate finance have imprinted themselves deeply into the cultural tissue; supported by retrospective rationalization of oracular high priests and market whisperers, as reliable as late night astro-TV. Leaving the modernist rationality of language behind, the city in the network of financial capital is based on a language without meaning. Cohesion of communities, in an exchange of half-understood codes, is increasingly based on the forces of imagination and on production of the culture industry. Art and cultural myths are the grease for the friction and internal contradictions of supranational systems.
Not only do secular myths transcend market failures and overproduction, but cultural fetishes and their satellites are navigational systems of lifestyle. Cultural starred signs and attractors shape the rules of reality and construct the framework of interpersonal relationships. An art strike does not amount to an oil crisis but once the imagination refuses to be put to work, all wheels stop turning.

Dream Cities

The Picatrix, an old Arabic grimoire, was widely spread in medieval and Renaissance Europe. This book describes the legendary Egyptian city Adocentyn. According to Chaldean tradition, the city belonged to the mythical Hermes Trismegistos and was guarded by four talking statues. Its citadel was crowned by a lighthouse which lit the city in the seven planetary colors and magical pictures were engraved in the walls "in order to enhance the virtue of the inhabitants and to fend off harm". A concept which reminds of radio towers in modern towns, and advertisements or billboards which refer to "ideal places" and "ideal objects". It resembles an early form of strategic communication, which uses art in the public sphere and symbolic connections to influence behavior. Adocentyn inspired many utopian systems of the Renaissance such as J.V. Andreae’s "Christianopolis" or Campanella’s "City of the Sun". In the past, artists intensively dealt with the concept of an ideal city, which usually remained virtual phantom cities. Even if retrospectively aesthetic aspects move to the foreground, ideal cities of the Renaissance were indebted to the functionalism of utilitarian design. Similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s strongly geometrical city planning, which is characterized by its perfect integration of a network of canals and sewage systems, orthogonal grids of ideal cities expressed rationality. The regular geometry of strong perspectives and straight streets represents the political and economic context, the central power of state and capital. In the age of gun powder, the ring-shaped, passive fortifications of the Middle Ages turned out to be unsuitable in the defense against cannons, and fortifications became star-shaped. This type of star-shaped cities influenced many utopian systems for a long time.

Urban Utopias

"The City of the Sun" (Civitas Solis) is an urban utopia of the Italian philosopher Tommaso Campanella. Written in the year 1602, after his imprisonment because of civil unrest and heresy. The book describes an egalitarian social order where property and resources are managed collectively. Everyone, depending on interests and talents, makes do with four hours of daily work. Campanella, interested in new discoveries, even foresaw spectacular new inventions like self-propelling ships without sails. Knowledge is not shut away in books and libraries, but open to all. Walls are painted with the arts and sciences. Scientific visualization and art in the public sphere would be encouraging a fast and efficient form of knowledge reception. In this theatre of knowledge children play and learn effortlessly. The City of the Sun is a repository device of Ars Memoria, an urban memory machine just like the mythical Adocentyn. The art of memory uses the emotional power of pictures as part of a magical practice, which is an unusual but systematic access to the meaning of space for human action. Space influences behavior, actions are influenced at a distance, all through empty space. Such concepts were not only useful in the past, an understanding of complex connections of real space and human behavior also concerns future socio-scientific concepts of space. The question of the ideal city is inherently connected with that of the best societal structure, with a politico-social utopia. Even if many utopias tie in with a historical idea of a theocratic order, and discredited with the suspicion of totalitarianism, there is not the faintest reason to assume that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. It demonstrates a serious lack of socio-political imagination. This lack is also mirrored in the field of art and culture. "New Babylon" has burned down.

Urban Order

Institutions of a city reflect the character and the culture of civil servant administrative forces. At the very root of its conception, the city is founded under the sign of a bureaucratic meritocracy, and the members of this class can hardly warm to egalitarian utopias or radical cultural visions. In collusion with politics, economics and finance they build consensus. In interchange with several sectors of the establishment, processes are set in motion and facts are made. "Culture" represents the decorum in all this. An excessive trust into the controllability of facts combined with only slight appreciation of democratic mechanisms is balanced by an inclination to stay opaque. Assuming the gesture of apparent infallibility, bureaucratic structures like to operate in the shadows. Disguising the factual power of the institutional and constantly referring to practical constraints, Byzantine forms of despotism are hidden behind a facade of efficient modesty. Contemporary art subsidies are first of all an instrument for the city administration management in order to contain the potential for political dissent and a vent for youthful enthusiasm. If it is not the police it is civil servants that decide whether art is art or a disturbance of public order. However against the background of outsourcing western production facilities to so called low wage countries, post-industrial societies suddenly start using economic development frameworks to boost "innovation" and culture as the new economic motor.

Machines of Cultural Capital

Richard Florida, televangelist of an iridescent Creative Industry, presumably offers insights into this new economic development. He has become famous due to his scaling of cities according to creativity, as well as an index for homosexuals and bohemia as indication for tolerant and vibrant regions. Florida maintains that this correlates with economic growth as it attracts members of the creative class. All of this has been put into the formula "technology, talent, and tolerance". Well-meaning centre-left and centre-right decision- makers are fascinated by creative industries key words. Some social democrat mayors cannot do without them. It offers allegedly simple solutions for the shift of the economic focus in the direction of a dematerialized creation of value. And it draws from the observation of the internet bubble phenomena, with ecstatic forms of capitalism and a cognitive proletariat who meet their ennui with a doubtable mix of work and play. Despite dubious data, leagues of politicians and journalists excitedly rant about the "creative class" although they have totally different ideas about its actual properties. It is doubtlessly charming to presume that marginal factors such as an idiosyncratic art scene could be a foundation of economic power. However, the notion that it could be artificially created by the political class has turned out to be an illusion. In spite of long lasting creative rhetoric there is 0% more tolerance for alternative lifestyles or a sponsorship of talent via the de-economization of life (i.e. cheaper living, etc.). Richard Florida’s 3 T’s of the Creative Class in Bobostan, arty Peak-Oil yuppies with mostly mediocre talents but a pronounced fetish for lifestyle technology, mistake ignorance for tolerance.

Citadels of Security

The conservative broken-windows-theory can be seen as a culture theoretical counterpiece and as the foundation of the so-called "zero tolerance strategy". It is the name of a concept developed in the US which states that comparably harmless phenomena, like a broken window in a deserted building, can lead to total neglect and the breakdown of security in the whole neighborhood. This "broken windows hypothesis" is popular and widespread despite never having been proven and oftentimes refuted. An idea spread by the Manhattan Institute think tank with the motto "Turning Intellect into Influence" as the motor of a new culture of control. Even though it cannot explain the roots of criminality but only describe its symptoms, it still forms the presumably scientific basis of many measures in crime prevention.
Questions of security and urbanization are tightly connected; fortification and the building of boundaries of urban space by the means of defensive and aggressive architecture are part of a long standing evolution. Urban morphology and geography have always developed together with technologies of war and political power. Lines of sight are indeed firing lines, metropolitan railways used to be troop carriers, the word "boulevard" stems from "bulwark" or "Bulwerke", and even the bible devoted a lot of space to the siege and destruction of cities. Today’s military urbanism is not determined by traditional walls and fortifications but by a logic of production of space and by intelligent systems for the organization and control of this space. New security concepts concentrate especially on cities; disturbances are detrimental to the economy. Technological systems and infrastructures which form the basis of urban life are particularly vulnerable and at risk to become military targets. Militarized zones of control are fully integrated into the building, maintenance and extension of these networks. Fortification in a traditional sense of the word increasingly becomes cultural decor, a symbolic marker of economic power and status.

Software City

Instead of walls and ramparts, new architectures of control consist of software algorithms, satellites, and electronic tracking systems. Fortifications are changing into global assemblages of continued linkages of data banks and sensors. Global socio-technological architectures of security in urban life are replacing the traditional borders of national states. Immaterial systems of order are fragmenting, zoning, and stratifying urban spaces. Free trade zones, export zones, duty free warehouses and special economic areas, gated communities, privatization of public space, "security zones" or airports. New urban borderlines are developing wherever the flows of the city are forced through "checkpoints" and where militarized surveillance networks organize the borders of "inside" and "outside". Fragmented spaces are not a contrast to oligopolies and extreme market concentrations. Urban spaces, a medium of "the war against terror" are at the same time a place of revolt. The enemy does not come from without the gates, but hides within. Production of space in this omni-directional war accelerates the use of sensors and software systems – by means of biometrical passports, global logistics, and e-commerce, airline profiling and navigation and homing guidance systems. Intelligent materials are increasingly woven into the security fabric of social space and into infrastructures of urban places in order to serve as hidden ways to control disenfranchised subjects. Electronic control devices, orchestrated to exploit the individual, leading to societies of control embedded in ambient intelligence. Feeding on the technophile dreams of an illusionary omnipotence and total surveillance, these installations fulfill the purpose of behavior modification by laying down the rules of the game.

Operative Space Interventions

The traditional separation of the military and the civilian domains, the “inside” and the “outside” disappears in the increasing fusion of industry and police, event management and border controls, urban security and entertainment. Connections between the immobile spaces of streets and buildings and the fluid fields of the fulfillment of desire, the field of memory and phantasms, are represented in the colonization of exterior and interior space by the military entertainment complex. This entertainment-security-complex pervades and normalizes cultures, not only in the tight fusion of digital entertainment, urban simulation and electronically supported warfare. A global travelling circus of temporary security zones of G8 meetings, Olympic Games, or World and European Championships, becomes normality. Summits, mass events and gladiator fights are implemented and supervised by armies of itinerant specialists. Media-entertainment-military industries do not only celebrate the security fetish, but it is their business model. It profits from "disaster capitalism", mob mentality, and fear. Mercenary troops of private security service providers, public and private-public operations are increasingly legitimized to use force in the name of capital, state, or the stability of the "international system". The future of military expeditions, however, does not lie in the defense of invasions but in the defense of investment. The current generation of asymmetric warfare and the so-called "long war" – permanently militarized zones – rely on the psychological force of pictures in the safeguarding of information dominance. Cultural peacekeeping is based on the control of behavior via influence on imagination, and the permanent live-broadcasting of videos, pictures and texts by means of TV and net.

Phantom City of the Future

Cities do not only consist of walls, bridges, streets, buildings, factories, places of production and spaces of consumption, symbolically located in maps and land registers, but of a topology of electromagnetic fields and relational geopolitical flows of energy and information. Circuits of capital, trade and persons embedded in ubiquitous electronic presence and all-pervasive communication technology. It encompasses absolute, but also relative and relational relationships of space and time in the geopolitical influence spheres of finance and information flows as spooky influence at a distance. Multidimensional spaces are formed by use, experience, and understanding. Cultural intelligence and practice are concerned with the psycho-geographical analysis and depiction of multidimensional spaces including the visualization of information dominance. As in the zoning of immaterial intellectual property regimes, and the stratification of social relationships in hyper-space both are concerned with the dynamics of the virtual and the symbolic compared with materially tangible places. It is about the interaction of conceptualized representation spaces and real lived space, where property or rather power relations, the social might of money, determine the level of isolation or solidarity. Art and culture, beyond their function of status decorum or tax conserving investment, serve as an autonomous examination of processes and systems. Urban psycho-geographic art and practice investigate overarching spheres of influence at the crossroads of the trivial, the attractions of popular imagination, and the generators of systemic reality. Cities constitute themselves through the intensity and the instability of longing, desires and fears, through phantasms of ideological hegemony that exploit yearnings, dreams, and frustration, but also lived spaces of empathy and international solidarity. Not only competing centers of hegemonic dominance, but also the scattered social movements against a repressive, neoliberal dominance are connected in a network of global cities. Strategies of change and conceptual manipulation of relational space time change potentials of cognitive labor into strategic realities of an informational matrix. Without the multifaceted wealth of urban heterogeneity, beyond the evil eye of the logic of exploitation, even the homogenized mainstream would have been asphyxiated long ago. Visible centers are dominating the presence, but the future is developing at the margins, in cracks, crevices and the spaces between. Phantoms of the city, forces and agents which defy visibility: they are the future.


Content type
Projects Phantom Kulturstadt
World-Information Institute
Date 2009


city Creative City urbanism intellectual property intellectual property (IP) globalization Renaissance utopia creative industries Civitas Solis Picatrix culture public sphere public space financial markets security technologies control technologies Richard Florida Tommaso Campanella Leonardo Da Vinci Konrad Becker
No query in this session yet. Please use the tag map to the left to get a listing of related items.